A tasting – organised by Angela Lloyd with reportedly enthusiastic cooperation from producers – of 29 local white wines with a significant “skin-contact” component was both illuminating and complicating. Would you have guessed there were that many around, for a start? It showed the great diversity of style, technique and quality that the category encompasses, but raised lots of questions. Some of the latter were related to the intentions and practices of the producers, others to the categories that the Wine and Spirits Board now allows for such non-traditional winemaking approaches.
And immediately I’m in trouble, because some of the winemakers will insist that lengthy skin-contact for white wines IS the genuinely traditional approach, merely forgotten about by the mainstream. I can’t get into that here – as a start I can refer readers to Angela’s review of a recent book about these “orange wines”. These weren’t all orange, by the way – many were, with different degrees of hue; some made from redder-skinned varieties (like semillon gris and pinot gris, as opposed to black-skinned varieties) were distinctly red-orange; some were pleasingly gold, others looked pretty standard pale-straw.
Beginners to this subject must first remind themselves that nearly all grapes have colourless juice (pale yellow-green, really); the colour in red wines comes from skin contact. The pale straw colour in standard white wines (including in sparkling wines from pinot noir) comes from the skins being more-or-less rapidly whisked away from the fermenting juice: this is the nearly universal way that modern white wines are made. Rosés are either blends of red and white wines or, preferably, made from leaving the blacks skins in contact with the juice for just a short period.
There is a possibly vexed relationship between skin-contact wines and what we tend to call “natural” wines and generally avant-gardish (or deeply traditional, if you prefer!) wines. There’s a frequent overlap, anyway. One of the commonest shared characteristics of “natural” wines is their low alcohol levels. Most of the wines here were below 12% alcohol – often well below, going down to 10% (as per the label); this nicely illustrates that skin-contact is a technique used primarily by winemakers with a particular aesthetico-philosophic approach, if I can call it that. But a few were as high as 14%.
What else did all (or most) of these wines have in common? A marked avoidance of fruitiness, particularly the ones that were more obviously oxidative – the typical characters that we tend to associate with different varieties were at the very least muted. There was plenty of acidity (contributing vitally to the freshness) – but that is associated with early-picking, and there was usually some degree of tannic grip, resulting from the maceration on the skins (where much of a grape’s tannin is to be found). Most were perceptibly dry.
Big acid, tannin, dryness, lack of fruitiness – the inevitable result of this balance was an austerity, and occasionally even a dour charmlessness. Fram Grenache Gris 2017 was one such, I thought, while Craven Pinot Gris was rather austerely structured but its flavourfulness made it an elegant pleasure rather than hard work.
Balance of all the elements is everything, of course, which makes generalisations difficult. I found some of the low-alcohol wines tending to the insipid, even if they weren’t exactly “green”: the otherwise lovely Craven Clairette Blanche 2017, Testalonga El Bandito Skin 2017 and Baby Bandito Stay Brave 2017, though the fresh light, flavourful charm of El Bandito Sweet Cheeks 2017 Muscat d’Alexandrie made it more acceptable at 10% alcohol – if not exactly genuinely vinous. Others also compensated somehow for the lack of ripe vinosity: Intellego Elementis 2016, a chenin at around 10.5% alcohol was one of the general favourites at the table.
And some of the higher-alcohol wines seemed – but probably this was just the context – a little too powerful: Richard Hilton The Ancient Viognier 2017, perhaps, though I really enjoyed the wine; Springfontein Dark Side of the Moon 2015 and Dragonridge Cygnus 2015, which I enjoyed less (though I have had the latter before, when I appreciated it more).
Other favourites of mine (all 2017s unless otherwise noted) were Mother Rock Liquid Skin, Elemental Bob Retro Chenin Blanc and My Cosmic Hand White (both 2016), Blackwater Blanc, Maanschijn’s Easy Tiger and Spin Cycle, Thorne and Daughters Tin Soldier, Raised by Wolves Rooi Groen Semillon La Colline 2016, Force Majeure Celeste, Bosman Fides.
Are these skin contact wines going to develop? I doubt it; most of them (especially the lightest ones) seem designed for early, refreshing drinking. The purpose of ageing wine is for the primary/secondary fruit to develop complexity. These wines often had a sort of complexity from the process, but most of them didn’t have much in the way of fruit to develop. Drink now, then – but order a bottle only if you know you like the stuff. If fruit flavourfulness and generosity and charm are what you want, you’re going to have to develop a taste for these wines (worth doing if you like variousness in your wine-drinking). Whatever their producers like to think, these are generally not easy wines; not for the uninitiated.
- Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.